spanish poems

How to Use Spanish Poems as Powerful Learning Tools

Poetry is a powerful literary style.

Spanish is a naturally lovely, graceful and romantic language which easily lends itself to excellent poetry.

But when I say “poetry,” you’re probably imagining something way too simple or way too complex.

People usually think of a “the cat sat on the mat” level of rhyming children’s poems. Or they think of the complex poems they dissected in college.

Spanish poetry is a unique breed. It’s not only beautiful to read, but it’ll equip you with romantic phrases and everything beyond.

But how’s reading Spanish poetry going to really improve your Spanish? Is it practical for learners? Well, let’s find out!
 


 
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Why Learn Spanish with Poems?

Not only will poems help your Spanish language, but they’ll help your understanding of Spanish cultures. By reading poems by authors of various nationalities, you’ll grow to appreciate nuances of language and culture that make each country different.

This is because poetry is an essential piece of any culture. Poems embody the unique culture and worldview of the society from which they spring. You’ll also catch glimpses of the society of origin’s social and political climate. This isn’t only true about Spanish poetry, but all poetry. For example, a poem written by a British man during the American Revolution will be incredibly different than a poem written by an American man during the same era.

The same thing applies with Spanish poetry. Reading a poem by a Mexican poet may be quite different than a poem written by a Chilean poet.

Why?

Because both countries have different cultures, political backgrounds, environments, histories and so on. This is why it’s important to cast a wide net when reading poetry. Beyond this cultural element, I’m going to give you three very real outcomes of learning Spanish through poetry.

1. Poetry will expand your vocabulary

Let’s take a short section of a poem in English to illustrate this point. This is a poem by Walt Whitman called “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”

A noiseless, patient spider,

I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood isolated;

A promontory? What’s that? Basically, it’s a ledge. In my everyday life would I have ever come across this word? Maybe…but probably not. It’s the same with Spanish poems. Poetry explores language of varying complexity and it plays with words and grammar in unique ways to express ideas and imagery. It strives to capture your imagination and your heart with colorful descriptions.

The more you read more poems, the more new words you’ll learn. You’ll be able to better express yourself. You’ll finally be able to write Spanish like a total pro. And you’ll be able to flip through the pages of classic Spanish literature with greater ease.

2. Poetry will teach you different sentence structure

Oftentimes the first thing we think about poems is that they have to rhyme. That’s a natural connection we’ve been taught since elementary school. Not all poems rhyme, but all poems play with sentence structure. Sentence structure manipulation is easily seen in poems that rhyme because in our everyday language we don’t speak in rhymes.

Let’s look at another poem in English that demonstrates this principle. “Peanut Butter Sandwich” by Shel Silvertein is one of my favorites.

His subjects all were silly fools

For he had passed a royal rule

That all they could learn in school

Was how to make a peanut-butter sandwich.

Outside of a poem this sentence would make more sense written like this:

None of the king’s subjects were very smart because

He told them the only thing they could learn at school

Was how to make a peanut-butter sandwich.

Obviously example number 2 doesn’t sound very poetic and that’s the point. Poetry is supposed to stretch the limits of language and rearrange words to create something that sounds beautiful.

This lesson is where a lot of people get hung up on poetry. Sentences don’t seem to make sense, they don’t flow as usual and they’re almost foreign. Things get rearranged in strange and unexpected ways. Spanish poetry is no different. In a bit we’ll look at how Spanish poets play with sentence structure, and how this can help you with your Spanish skills.

3. Poetry creates images with words

Poetic imagery is lovely and all, but does it help you with your Spanish?

Yes. Poems will teach you new ways to describe things. Next time you’re having a conversation with someone, you can draw descriptions from different poems that you’ve read. Here’s an example of a poem translated by Joshua Sylvester which was originally written by Du Bartas.

But when winter’s keener breath began

To crystallize the Baltic ocean,

To glaze the lakes and bridle up the floods,

And periwig with wool and bald-pate woods.

Maybe next time you talk about something frosting over you’ll know to say that “it crystallized.”

Now let’s take these three lessons and apply them to a Spanish poem.

How to Use Spanish Poems as Powerful Learning Tools

“Walking Around” by Pablo Neruda

Neruda was a Chilean poet—probably one of the most well-known Spanish poets. He’s the equivalent of someone like Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Neruda even won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1917. It’s no wonder we’re going to use a poem by this amazing author as our case study.

Also, most of his poems are available in English and Spanish, which is a big plus.

Let’s jump right in with the first stanza in Neruda’s poem “Walking Around.”

Sucede que me canso de ser hombre. (It so happens I am sick of being a man.)

Sucede que entro en las sastrerías y en los cines (And it happens that I walk into tailor shops and movie-houses)

marchito, impenetrable, como un cisne de fieltro (dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt)

navegando en un agua de origen y ceniza. (steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.)

Let’s take our three learning lessons and apply them to this stanza.

1. Poetry will expand your vocabulary

There are a few words in this stanza that I don’t use on a day-to-day basis. I wasn’t even sure what some of them were until I read the translation.

Sastrerías (tailor shops)

Marchito (dried up)

Fieltro (felt)

Ceniza (ashes)

Look at that! You can now add four more words to your growing Spanish vocabulary, and this is only one stanza! Imagine reading the whole poem. In fact, why don’t you go read the whole poem right now? 

2. Poetry will teach you different sentence structure

This entire stanza is only two sentences. The first sentence is pretty straightforward, but the second sentence is where Neruda starts playing with structure.

“In a water of wombs and ashes” isn’t a typical phrase in English, or a typical phrase in Spanish for that matter. Typically you would use a word like “lake,” “pond” or “puddle” instead of “a water.” But that’s what’s so cool about poetry, you can break the rules a little.

3. Poetry creates images with words

The most powerful image, in my opinion, is “dried up, waterproof , like a swan made of felt.”

Wow.

You can see it. You can see the swan made of felt. You can feel that swan. This little phrase makes such an impact. A swan is a bird that loves water. It’s wet, it’s beautiful and majestic. When Neruda says, “like a swan made of felt,” all of a sudden that beautiful image of a swan is cheap, dried up and artificial.

Maybe next time you feel worn out or not quite like yourself you can simply say, “Soy un cisne de fieltro.”

Your Turn

This doesn’t just apply to one stanza either, it applies to every stanza of every poem you’ll come across. Take a good hard look at the rest of the Neruda poem and go through these three steps with every stanza. Your Spanish will explode from all the new things you’ll learn.

More Great Spanish Poetry

This isn’t the only poem by Pablo Neruda (of course). In fact, you can buy a book from Amazon entitled “The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems (Bilingual Edition).” Since this book is bilingual, you can read through the poem in Spanish, see how much you understand, then check your understanding with the English translation. Another great poetry book by Pablo Neruda is “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair: Dual-Language Edition.”

spanish poems

Once you’ve gone through Neruda, move on to another poet. Every poet has a different voice and style. Federico García Lorca was not only a poet, he wrote stories too. “Selected Poems: with parallel Spanish text” is a book full of his beautiful poems that also guides you through new Spanish language.

Another incredibly famous Spanish story writer/poet is Jorge Luis Borges. He and Neruda are often mentioned in the same breath. “Poemas del Alma” is full of poems by Borges.

So, now can you see that poems aren’t as scary as your high school teacher led you to believe? Who knows, maybe you’ll start writing your own Spanish poems! Try it out. Play with sentence structure, rhythm, language and images.

Who knows what kind of beautiful Spanish imagery you can conjure up!

 


 

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